Google has a PR problem. No, I don’t mean PageRank. I’m talking about the original definition of PR – Public Relations. And, it’s maybe less Public Relations than it is Webmaster Relations.
You see, Google hasn’t done a good job of balancing content about problems with content about successes and improvements. They haven’t really needed to — with 70% market share of search, there wasn’t a competitor in sight.
But, as Bing gains market share (both in general and through their partnerships with FaceBook and Siri), Google is going to need to pay more attention to their communication strategy.
Years ago, webmasters had no way to communicate with Google. They could analyze logfiles and write their own little programs to apply fixes to their sites, but there was no opportunity to get data from Google directly.
Now, we have Webmaster Tools in all its glory – and with all its flaws.
We have the Google Webmasters YouTube channel, where Matt Cutts (Google’s appointed spokesperson) provides cryptic feedback that we then must analyze and decipher. We can even watch the @mattcutts Twitter feed and attempt to spin anything Matt says into the next big thing. All of this is great, and webmasters and SEOs alike are grateful for the information.
But Google has a content marketing challenge that’s born out of their organizational structure. Their content is significantly skewed toward what webmasters are doing wrong, rather than praising them for what they’re doing right. This is a difficult line to walk, because how do you publicize good? It’s not actionable unless they tell us what we can do better.
Even Matt Cutts, who is frequently (incorrectly) labeled Head of Search Quality is actually Head of Web spam. That’s right, spam – and all the negativity that goes with it.
We don’t get to engage directly with the search quality team. Matt is happy to pass on messages, but that’s really all he can do. We don’t get to hear directly from the people who are trying to improve the algorithm’s recognition of “good sites.” And while there are plenty of examples of sites that have done wrong, there are very few examples of sites that have done right.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying Matt isn’t great at PR, because frankly, he’s amazing.
It’s just that Googlers in general are so well trained to stick to the company line and not give too much away that I think they must be stress-tested internally on a regular basis. But because of this, every time Matt Cutts gives one of his famous non-answers or posts on his Twitter feed about some new tweak to the algorithm, it’s perceived as a negative.
With the last Penguin update, there was a great deal of backlash. People were saying, “Why don’t you stop focusing on those who are in the wrong and start rewarding those who are in the right?” The answer is: that’s not Matt’s job.
There are people at Google who are figuring out ways to reward good sites, but the only one we get to talk to is Matt. And it’s his job to rid the world (or at least the Internet) of spam, not to pat us on the head and say we’re doing a great job. That’s not necessarily the only thing Matt wants to be doing. As you can glean from this Twitter conversation, he has ideas that he wants to act on:
But he does hate spam:
Bing, on the other hand, does a very good job of communicating the positive. Their spokesman, Duane Forrester, is Senior Program Manager and Manager of Bing Webmaster Tools. And while he and Matt are both nice guys who mean well, Duane gets a lot more opportunity to tell us about the good and exciting things Bing is doing.
Bing needs this positive PR a bit more than Google, and their PR strategy is much better balanced in terms of how they communicate with webmasters. Their language is softer and more positively oriented:
We like to give Duane a hard time at conferences, and joke that there actually is another search engine besides Google, but the fact is that Duane is more able to communicate with webmasters on what good search quality means, and Bing Webmaster Tools gives webmasters more data than Google Webmaster Tools does. (If only the sample set were larger!)
All of this contributes to our love/hate relationships with Google and Bing. We love Google because they give us great tools and they drive the majority of our traffic. But, we hate the one-sidedness of the communication.
We love Bing because of the great tools and communication they offer, but wish the sample size was bigger. As Bing grows, Google may have to leave behind their strategy of only communicating in cryptic messages like the one below.
In the future, instead of hearing Matt Cutts give “negative quality” ideas, like this recent one from YouTube…
… maybe he could provide some positive quality signs and even some examples of positive sites to emulate.
If I were to win the Google “CEO for a day” contest, aside from going on a mad shopping spree and giving back not-provided keyword data in some form, I’d change Matt’s title. He obviously has ideas, and while he does hate spam, he also appreciates quality. I’d give him the leeway to communicate in a positive way about Google’s search improvements, instead of having him focus only on spam.
Perhaps a yin to his yang could be Maile Ohye, a little known Googler who is focused on improving Google for developers (her title is Developer Programs Tech Lead). She’s who we have to thank for canonical tags and various other “fixes” for the daily challenges that developers face. She regularly speaks at SMX events, but isn’t visible much beyond that.
Perhaps Matt said it best at SXSW this year (and previously in this video), when he suggested renaming “search engine optimization” to “search experience optimization.” Now that’s a positive message – one that infers that good experiences will be rewarded. But it doesn’t fit with Web spam, so that’s probably all we’ll hear about it from Matt.
Another Googler needs to pick up that torch and run with it. Imagine how positive Google’s communication and results could be if they were able to evangelize that thinking – experience over anything else. I’ve long said that all good SEO tactics are rooted in the principles of usability. Google has the reach and the power to make this new definition of SEO a reality, if only they would publicize the message.